How to keep your cool in high-stress situations

Recent research in neuroscience offers insights into the process of self-regulation in stressful situations. Studies have shown that specific tactics can help us navigate our natural tendency to be defensive when confronted.

One of us (Stephen) developed the polyvagal theory, which explains how our nervous system regulates our behaviour using the vagus nerve, the major parasympathetic nerve in the autonomic nervous system. This nerve provides bidirectional connections between the brain and the heart, gut and other organs in our body, and is part of a predictable response sequence that is activated when we are threatened. There are three levels to this response.

Level one is immobilization. Under dire threat, a reptile or mammal may collapse and mimic death. This is a natural and adaptive reaction.

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Level two is mobilization. The heart begins to beat faster. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, the body produces cortisol and adrenaline and prepares for action. This is the “fight or flight” response.

Level three is engagement and connection. When we feel safe again, a vagal pathway quiets the defensive features. The body releases oxytocin, and our vision, hearing, voice and mind begin to work in concert with our heart. We are not in the “tunnel vision” of fight or flight, so we can see the bigger picture and connect with others around shared goals.

As a leader, the more effectively you can self-regulate, the better you can lead and help others. We’ve developed a five-step framework to help people make this shift:

1. Understanding: The first step is knowing the biology behind these reactions and accepting that being at level one, two or three is normal. Knowing where you are on the hierarchy gives you choice and the power to shift.

2. Awareness: When you feel challenged, notice the physical and emotional cues that signal you’re experiencing anxiety. Do you feel a knot in your stomach? Or your heart racing? See these as signs of where you are in your reaction; probably level two.

3. Recall: Bring to mind previous experiences when you’ve successfully moved through uncertainty in the past. You might even write down what you did to navigate a difficult situation and use your own success to give yourself hope that you can get through this one too.

4. Intention: With hope in mind, let go of the need to serve your ego by clarifying your highest purpose. Focusing on your intention will release oxytocin and help you shift to level three.

5. Trust the Process: When you’re at level three, it’s much easier to explore and develop ideas with the other person. The interaction is an emergent learning process — it will be challenging, but as long as you stay connected and don’t move back to level one or two, you can get through it together. In fact, you can become skilled at making others safe and keep inviting them back into mutually beneficial conversations.

Self-regulation opens the way to collaboration and change. Understanding our biological reactions in high-stress situations gives us a path to follow; it is then our choice if we walk this path or fight it. And the choice we make is often the difference between our success and failure.

Robert e. Quinn is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. David p. fess Ellis an executive coach and a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan medical school. Stephen w. Porges is a professor of psychiatry at the university of north Carolina.

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